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California Roadtrip Restaurants

Note: I'm reposting from the California board so I can get a wider variety of answers...

Hi all, a friend and I are making a long awaited road-trip from Napa to San Diego, stopping wherever, whenever along the way to see and eat everything in sight. Both of us have a huge appreciation for good food, regardless of how much it costs, and if anything, enjoy cheap, hole-in-the-walls as much or more than your typical 5 star place. As an example, in NYC I probably got more enjoyment out of the $1 dumplings at dirty, cheap Jessica's Dumplings in Chinatown than I did from Momofuku Ko. Given our current financial situations, we most likely won't be stopping at the French Laundry type places (as if we could get a table), but would consider one or two nice meals over our 10 day trip. What we really want to know is what places are so amazing or so famous that we should pull off of the PCH, or even make a 30 minute detour to try. We'll be going roughly: Napa, Monterey/Carmel, Big Sur, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, LA, SD, hopefully on the PCH for most of the trip. We'll spend about 4 days in LA, and most of the rest on the road, and we plan on stopping a bunch of places to see random sites. We can stop wherever we want, so I guess we're hoping people mention any must-stop places along the coast, and we'll make a point to go to as many as we can.

Any type of food is welcome, the more authentic and delicious the better, so in this case I would guess people will suggest some amazing taquerias and asian joints.


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  1. So is the question where to stop in the Bay Area for one reasonably priced but good meal? That's what it sounds like.

    That's still a big question. My picks, given you're from the East Coast, would probably be Chez Panisse (still not cheap), Aziza (mid range), Slanted Door or Zuni...or along those lines. Maybe Shanghai Dumpling King if you like XLB dumplings.

    Beyond that and for the rest of the drive -- do a search for taco trucks for each region. You'll find them everywhere and they will be priced inexpensively. In LA and SD I'd look for Baja fish tacos.

    1. The Marshall Store in Marshall Ca. about 30 miles north of SF has the best bar b q'd oysters on the planet. This place sits on Tomales Bay with wonderful views, but its no 5 star place, more like a country store. enjoy!

      1. Folks, we ask everyone to recommend places appropriate for the SF Bay area board, which covers the counties that touch the SF Bay.

        thehamburglar has also posted this question on the Los Angeles and California boards.

        For recs in the Los Angeles / Orange / Ventura / San Bernadino Counties, please follow this link the L.A. board

        For the rest of the state outside our definition of the SF and LA boards , please follow here:

        1. Well, you've got some routing choices.

          If you come due south from napa, you come into oakland, and you should spend an hour doing an international blvd taco crawl. Tacos are a buck a shot, selection of meats, 5 or 6 places in a few blocks. You'll love it. There's a few long threads about all the spots and exactly where to go.

          You'll also pass by China Village, a chow hound renound chinese place that is consistantly the best I've eaten and cheap for what you get (I will include 90% of the meals I've had in china). I eat there frequently and I'm never bored, never disappointed. It's a huge menu and worth some research (there's posts from long ago trying to pick apart the menu). Yesterday I ate "number one on the specials list" (usually a good idea) which was "lamb chop clay pot" which turned out far more interesting than the description, and a exquisite dish I can barely even describe - succulent slow cooked lamb in a spicy-tart sauce, big slivers of lemon zest mixed with some number of peppers. While not renound for their dumplings, they've expanded in the last few years - previously they just did water dumplings, now they do XLB and a few others. Yesterday I had the lamb and chive, and found a new, more refined dough and lots more tasty soup in the dumplings - all the lamb dumplings tend to be drier and more northern style, this was a bit of a melange. Tasty tasty tasty.

          Or - you can go west from napa directly to rte 1 (we don't call it the PCH up here, that's a southern thing). Take a route that gets you out to rte 1 by point reyes station and tomales bay (might involve a few miles of backtracking, but the road is glorious) If do that, you can hit an oyster house overlooking tomales bay where they're grown. South from there you go over the GG bridge (a common rec along the way is 'fish', which apparently suits your specs but I haven't been there).

          Although, you could at that point rotate around through downtown SF, hit the ferry building, the exploratorium if you've got kids or the water organ if you don't, and eat any of the SF recommendations.

          Or, if you're in a hurry, you can simply eat along the avenues (greater 19th ave south of GG park). There you should grab as much asian food as you can. There's a well reviewed Beijing place by Ocean Blvd, there's shanghai dumpling king. There's Burma Superstar (I think). Read about the Cliff House, a previous-tourist-trap with great views with a moment in the sun.

          Now you've got the choice of taking the coast or going slightly inland. If you go straight down the coast, eatings get thin. There's a few good spots here and there, but through San Mateo county there's well-reviewed Barbera's Fish Trap, and maybe the half-and-half soup at generally overrated (but nice atmosphere) duarte's, although I'm really interested in the goat cheese lady in the farm 100 yards away (but haven't tried).

          If you had taken the oakland route, you can switch over to the coast through the city or you've got the entire bay area between you and santa cruz. You can take the bay bridge and go through downtown SF (if I was being leisurely I'd take the treasure island offramp and enjoy the historic murals at the old TWA terminal and view of san francisco port, which then gives perspective on the actual SF port and ferry building) then stop at the ferry building for a leg-stretch and perambulation. there's a million places to recommend - for cheap eats one might consider the indian of the "tandoorloin" distrct (and get a huge slice-of-sf) or tacos in the mission, and very much bread and pasteries at Tartine, ice cream at Slocolmbe and/or BiRite, maybe the famous bacon latte, the new doughnut places. Oh my.

          You could take 880 down the east bay from oakland. I wouldn't recommend it - it's thin in the eats department - better down the peninsula through silicon valley (I hope I can say that without fear of retribution), especially if you like asian. Sushi Sam's is very down home, Formica tables, dishes up great fish (it's about as good as solid midrange toyko place) if you stick to the whiteboard, but you can rack up a bill in a hurry. I'm a fan of two shangahi places in San Mateo (shanghai east in particular). There's northern hot pot ("little sheep") in a few places, which is rare, and another unusual beijing place (everyday beijing). Millbrea's chinese is a world unto itself. I like the dim sum at Joy Luck in san mateo, others are raving about Foster City's Joy which I haven't tried since the remodel. You should check out the lists by El Taquistador and Sushi Monster rating all the sushi and taquerias in the lower peninsula (this person is unabashed that the perspective is uniquely his own, limited to the dishes he likes, I think he's generally spot-on - and he covers *everything*, the high and the low). If you didn't do the oakland taco crawl, hitting a joint (or two) in Redwood City is a good idea - specially along Middlefield Road, where you can pick up some real california atmosphere. Fast forward to Mountain View, home of the googleplex. If you don't know any employees to cadge a lunch invite, there's a number of good down home chinese places - look up Melanie's reviews, she's recently pointed out Jade Palace (actually in palo alto) and Trend a while ago. I'm fond of Fu Lam Mum and their Hong Kong Bistro next door right now, partially because they're stridently Hong Kong style and we get so little of that around here.

          A common "road food" recommendation is Falafel's Drive Inn, near rte 85 in san jose. It's good if you order what everyone else in line orders - falafel with hot sauce, and a banana shake. There's not that much of note in San Jose; perhaps a partisan of that area can speak up.

          There are two cuisines in western san jose that are brilliant - korean and indian. Downtown san jose is a bit new, prefab, and soulless. The majority of SJ is built on endless strip malls in a more LA fashion, which means lots of little great places run by real immigrants. Indian focus is on southern and chaat. My "worth a trip" spot is Mayuri in San Jose, which serves chicken 65 and killer dosas and will have you stuffed for $15/pp. I'm starting to eat the chaat houses of sunnyvale but don't have a concrete rec yet. There are a few posts of Korean in Sunnyvale too, but I haven't eat them. There used to be a number of hugely renound pho places, but I haven't heard much of them in a while.

          If you wanted a single splurge meal anywhere along your route (and I do mean *all* of your route), consider Manressa in Los Gatos. Kinch appears to be at the very top of his game, yet reservations are easy to come by. Go read uhockey's reviews - he's hit most of the bay area's "fancy restaurants" and did a long writeup of Manressa.

          Travelling south, be on the lookout for farm stands. You might choose 101 out of san jose and skip Santa Cruz (going more directly to Monterey & big sur). If you do, everything gets agricultural somewhere around Los Banos and you should pay attention to the california board's recs on fruit stands. We're near the end of strawberries right now, rather in the middle of apricots, maybe slightly early on plums. There are also stands along 1 in various places, but I always follow my nose out there and can't give names and intersections.

          Look, I've skipped over a *huge* amount of possible detail to make things less overwhelming. Considering all the possible routes, you're driving past thousands and thousands (maybe 10,000) possible restaurants, no fooling, even if you restrict to your price category. I've left out Korean in Oakland (Ogane), hippie in berkeley (Gratitude), vietnamese in Oakland and east SJ, beer everywhere (the best beer is made in the pacific northwest, and gets less fresh as you go south) - toranado in SF is a mecca - the pizza wars - "modern cuisine" (Wood Tavern in Oakland). There's no real way of knowing which joints are going to blow you away (recent visitor wrote about a life changing loaf of bread. We have good bread here. Is that the right rec for you? Unknown.).

          Thanks for narrowing down your request and providing some examples of what you like to eat. have a great trip, and please consider reporting back!

          2 Replies
          1. re: bbulkow

            NB. There is no mention of In-n-out. Even though I eat there occasionally, it is nowhere near as good as some deluded ravers claim. And if you're going to eat in-n-out, do it in LA. Maybe there's a terrior aspect that makes in-n-out better in LA.

            1. re: bbulkow

              In-N-Out is a Southern California chain, so why not save it for the culinary desert of San Diego?

          2. Second on barbecued oysters in West Marin and all of bbulkow's recommendations.

            If you're on a budget, skip Napa Valley. Sonoma Valley's nicer, cheaper, less touristy, has less traffic, and (unless you're on a Champagne budget) offers more interesting wines and food.

            If you take the eastern route around the Bay (which I don't particularly recommend), you could stop at Gerry's Grill in Union City for Filipino food such as sisig.

            In SF, $1.50 tacos at El Cachanilla, followed by dessert at Humphry Slocombe.

            You can eat well or badly at Duarte's depending on what you order. Look at past reports.

            Duarte's Tavern
            202 Stage Rd, Pescadero, CA 94060

            Gerry's Grill
            31005 Courthouse Dr, Union City, CA 94587

            Humphry Slocombe Ice Cream
            2790 Harrison St, San Francisco, CA 94110

            El Cachanilla
            2948 21st St, San Francisco, CA 94110

            4 Replies
            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              I totally second the Duarte's recommendation. Stick with the soups (Cream of Artichoke and Cream of Green Chili) and homemade pies. While you're in Pescadero, also swing by Harley Farms for some nice goat cheese samples.

              Harley Farms
              205 North St, Pescadero, CA

              1. re: kresge86

                Stick with the soup, one bowl with bread feeds 2 but I'm not sure it's worth the wait. If you must stop pick up some bread across the street. Before Pescadero the Creekside Smokehouse in El Granada will allow you to fill your picnic basket with great smoked fish and cheese for your evening snack while watching the sunset.

                1. re: kresge86

                  Harley Farms is worth the stop...not so sure about Duarte's.

                  Duarte's is a great old school place and I do like the place but everything besides the soups and some seafood items (the cioppino is good but it's $30) are subtle and very mildly seasoned. You have to order carefully, not sure a visitor would find it all that.

                  The taqueria at the gas station, Taqueria de Amigos is in many way is a better road trip stop.

                  Taqueria y Mercado Los Amigos
                  1999 Pescadero Creek Rd, Pescadero, CA

                  1. re: kresge86

                    I find Duarte's pie crust disgusting, but I'm used to good homemade butter and/or lard pastry.

                2. From one of the other topics:

                  "So far I've heard Bovolo and the Hopmonk Tavern in Napa are great ..."

                  Bovolo is in Healdsburg and Hopmonk is in Petaluma, both of which are in / adjacent to the Sonoma Valley wine country, which is the next region west of Napa Valley. So you're on the right track there.

                  You'll probably be driving through Santa Rosa, so consider Paradise Ridge and/or Russian River. In Petaluma, visit the amazing bakery-cafe Della Fattoria.

                  Given the reference to Hopmonk, some other beer links:

                  Della Fattoria
                  141 Petaluma Blvd N, Petaluma, CA 94952

                  City Beer Store
                  1168 Folsom St, San Francisco, CA 94103

                  Russian River Brewing Co.
                  725 4th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95404

                  Toronado Pub
                  547 Haight St, San Francisco, CA

                  The Trappist
                  460 8th Street, Oakland, CA

                  La Trappe
                  800 Greenwich St, San Francisco, CA 94133

                  Paradise Ridge Winery
                  4545 Thomas Lake Harris Dr, Santa Rosa, CA